Jan Matejko is one of the most famous Polish painters. Although of a similar age to Claude Monet (Matejko, born in 1838, was two years older than Monet), he could not be more different as a painter. While Monet was excluded from the Salon, Matejko was awarded gold medals at the exhibitions in Paris and Berlin. While Monet was pursuing innovation in painting nature, Matejko was using traditional techniques to express what he thought was his vocation – fighting for Polish independence not with a weapon but with his brush.
Matejko was born in Kraków, when Poland did not exist as an independent country and Kraków was under the occupation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The memory of the tragic November Uprising (1830) was still fresh in Matejko’s family; it influenced Jan’s imagination and sparked interest in Polish history. No wonder then that when the January Uprising of 1863 broke out, Jan and his brothers were eager to take part. Unfortunately, Jan’s ill health prevented him from joining it. Undeterred, he supported the Uprising financially. The painful experience of events around the Uprising also influenced Matejko’s decision to pursue historical painting. He became famous for painting large canvases with epic scenes of the most pivotal moments in the history of Poland. He wanted to spark a national conversation about what brought the loss of independence, and to keep alive the memory of the most glorious historic moments to make Poles feel proud of their culture and their identity. He wanted to encourage Poles to fight for their cultural and national survival. Although his paintings look almost like photographs, they are not a realistic snapshot of a particular moment. Matejko is a master story teller and his paintings are saturated with symbolism, hidden meanings as well as real historical characters. They are allegorical meditations on the history of Poland.
One of the most famous paintings is “Rejtan – Upadek Polski 1773” (Reytan – The Fall of Poland 1773). Matejko painted it in 1866 when he was 28.
Contrary to what the French audience thought, when the painting was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, the scene is not from a gambling hall, and the man lying on the floor had not just lost a large sum of money.
It’s 21st April 1773, and the place is a Parliament (Sejm) chamber of the Royal Castle in Warsaw where the First Partition of Poland is about to be ratified. The only person who is desperately trying to stop the process is one of the deputies, Tadeusz Rejtan (Reytan), who, in a dramatic gesture, is attempting to stop others from leaving the chamber and thus agreeing to Poland losing some of its territory. Rejtan knows what the consequences of the ratification will be – in just about 20 years Poland would cease to exist as an independent country. You can read more about the painting here.
Matejko is unique among other historical painters – although his painting depicts a real historical event, the characters portrayed are not necessarily those who were actually present, but those who had some influence on, or responsibility for the event and its consequences. It is a portrait of an epoch. The scene is full of symbols –przewrócone krzesło an overturned chair, tocząca się moneta a coin rolling on the floor towards the feet of Adam Poniński (the man in a red outfit), rozrzucone dokumenty documents scattered on the floor, podarte kotary torn door curtains, wypalone świece burnt out candles – all indicate treason and the decay of the Polish Commonwealth.
Those present in the painting display a range of emotions: rozgniewany furious, zdesperowany desperate, znudzony bored, zamyślony lost in thoughts, bezradny helpless, zrozpaczony distraught, obojętny indifferent, niezainteresowany uninterested, rozgoryczony bitter, zawiedziony disappointed, lekceważący dismissive, roztargniony absent-minded, lekkomyślny careless, przebiegły sly, przerażony terrified, oczekujący anticipating.
Matejko was a director of Kraków School of Fine Art and a mentor to some of the best known Polish painters: Maurycy Gottlieb, Jacek Malczewski, Józef Mehoffer and Stanisław Wyspiański, all of whom, somewhat ironically, followed Monet rather than Matejko in their own creativity. Indeed, Matejko acknowledged that when in a conversation said: “Painting the sun and the air belongs to you, I’ll stay with my old kings and knights”.
And yet, it is Matejko who remains extraordinarily popular and whose paintings are the most recognisable and loved by Poles. Many of them, like Rejtan, also appear to remain relevant to the current political affairs in Poland.
Polish tutor tips:
Look closer at the painting – which words listed in the text above would you use to describe the individual characters? What other adjectives could you use?
If you want to learn more about the painting ‘Rejtan’ watch the video: Polimaty – Po moim trupie Over my dead body
Here you can find out more about Tadeusz Rejatn
Listen to a programme about Jan Matejko
You can find out more about Matejko and his paintings here: